Writer-performer Sarah Jones is amazing. In her 2005 solo show, “Bridge & Tunnel,” she gave life to a cross-section of immigrants who get by in the city by living under the radar. In “Sell/Buy/Date,” her current solo piece now debuting at Manhattan Theater Club, she animates another group of New Yorkers who live in the shadows: the city’s sex workers. In the persona of a scholar from the future, she delivers a brilliant lecture on the history of commercial sex by inhabiting a cross-section of buyers and sellers in the sex trade.
Speaking in a posh British accent, a very poised, very earnest lecturer named Serene doesn’t indicate what year it happens to be. We do know that it’s later than 2032, the date of the last fiscal crisis, when the Koch Brothers bought the Bronx from the City of New York. It’s also well past the date that prostitution was legalized, which opened the way for popular and profitable “hotels with enhanced amenities,” which some people still insist on calling “brothels.”
One thing we do know is that we’re in some futuristic society that graciously arranges “hip-hop concerts for the elderly.” And another thing: Whoever these well-preserved humanoids are, they don’t get all their historical details right. Serene herself initially thought that Barbie dolls were teaching aids about the dangers of anorexia.
The unifying narrative device is Serene’s use of BERT (“bio-empathetic resonant technology”) to allow her students to experience the thoughts and feelings of people from our current generation, circa 2017. Slipping into Serene’s first subject, an elderly Jewish bubbela named Lorraine, Jones fully captures the voice, posture, expressions and opinions of that outspoken old lady. A native New Yorker, Lorraine doesn’t mind sharing her views on sex workers (“In my day they called it prostitution, not sex work”), but she draws the line at modern-day sex. “The took the love part right out of it, the fun,” she complains. “Lots of endurance, but never tenderness.”
Drawing on other subjects “along the gender continuum,” Serene does a hilarious takeoff on a college freshman named Bella who is majoring in Sex Work Studies. In a grating Valley Girl accent, Bella warns that she is badly hung over from the jello shots she put away at last night’s bi-weekly feminist pole-dancing party.
Even as the show expands, darkening the content and making the subjects more pitiable, Jones never entirely loses that cutting humor. “Well, you hafta have a sense of humor,” a Trinidadian woman reminds her interviewer when they meet at a sex workers’ rally. (“No Justice, No Piece!”) More than laughter, money is the real comfort for an illegal immigrant who was sold into sex work by traffickers who had promised her a hotel job.
Each character that Jones inhabits gives her a hook on which to hang some damning fact about contemporary sexual mores. The testimony of an Irish woman named Maureen, a beaten child, a battered wife and a nun before she became a street walker lets Serene remind her class that at-risk girls are generally introduced to the commercial sex industry by 12 or 13. And Cookie Chris, a pimp turned motivational speaker, preaches his own lesson when he says: “The crazy thing is, with all my anger about the system keeping the black man down, I couldn’t see the connection that I was keeping the black woman down myself.”
If the show does get a bit preachy at the end, it helps to remember that Jones is a political activist who wrote this piece from “hundreds of articles, books, movies, documentaries, and interviews.” She’s a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and has performed at the White House and at the Market Theater in South Africa, among other venues. The theater community has previously awarded her with a Tony, an Obie, and now, as always, with our sincere admiration and undivided attention.